How To Get A Cred In
by John Robinson
They were at a party when Kurt decided to show Lou how he felt. Something to do with the Warners Corporation, maybe, but the gathering was getting a little stale and anyway Kurt had always felt a bit of gnawing resentment for old Lou there. So much reverence for this man, when only 500 people bought his first record when it came out. So the time Kurt Heasley met Lou Reed, he threw a lamp out of his hotel window. And Lou paid.
He likes gestures, Kurt. He points to his right eye, this 26-year-old, and asks you to notice that after all the stuff he's done, all the drugs he's taken, he's only got two lines under it: one for him, and one for Seymour. That's Seymour Stein, the man who signed Madonna, the man who Kurt argues with about money for the new Lilys record. After the arguments, Kurt noticed that he had a grey hair, just the one, so he plucked it out and sent it to Seymour. And in return, Seymour sent him roses. But the eyes are the marvel, and like he was telling Elton, the fact that there's just the two lines there is down to the algae that he ingests daily. Algae is dinosaur food, the simplest nutritional kick you can get, and he's eager to spread the word about it. So when he got the chance he told Elton John, and Elton seemed pretty into the idea. Dietary matters could be where Kurt Cobain went wrong. Our Kurt used to work in Tower Records in New York City as the import buyer, and worked with this guy who was grudgingly going to take a job with this band who had a problem getting decent drummers. A good guy - Dave Grohl. The best guy in that band, as it turned out. But you want him to feel sympathy for a man who lived on Twinkies and burgers and then wondered why his stomach hurt? Please. The zelig of rock'n'roll is Kurt Heasley, and he has been everywhere, and met everybody. His trousers cost $350, and his jacket rather more. He has a wife called Peppermint, and tries to persuade you that you should have one just like her: Texan, with a thorough knowledge of the Kamasutra. He can DJ with three turntables at once, thinks that freemasonry and Scientology are the twin evils of American society, and believes that to drink Tequila properly requires three glasses (one juice, one spirit, one ice). But he'll tell us more about that when we do the interview. Now, at 12.30am, in Wing-It Chicken of Boston, Massachusetts, Kurt has appointed to be somewhere else. He's going to smoke pot with a friend of Blixa Bargeld's. Obviously.
Lilys are most of the decent bands from the '60s playing at the same time. On riffs, The Kinks. On harmonies, The Beach Boys. On lead guitar, the spine-tingling 12-string of The Byrds' Roger McGuinn, while the construction, the obsessive attention to detail, that's The Beatles, and The Beach Boys again. Classically, they were born of lost love. It is the mid-eighties. Six-and-a-half foot tall Kurt Heasley is in a band with his best friends Tony Emmendolio and Dave Jones, and is in love with a girl who he has courted with considerable charm and an anglicised vocabulary. He doesn't just fancy this girl, he's "wooing" her. He's followed her from Washington DC to New York, and from New York to Europe, and he's trying everything in his power to win her. For two years. I chased," sighs Kurt, "and I chased. We took boat rides. I took her flying once. I was romantic and utterly filled with love and awe and wanting. I thought I was attracting her " Deep sigh. "But it turned out she just wanted some dude who would put her face down and drill her like the Northern Californian coastline." Ah.
"So she meets our brilliant guitar player, and they start going out and it's like, 'See you at eight, we'll have a joint and go bowling', like some Auteurs song or something. And I think she became like a toy, and I played with her a couple of times. Then they kicked me out of the band, because they said I had no idea of the meaning of friendship, because I slept with all their girlfriends and lied to them and set them up for total embarrassment. They were pink in the face and screaming and crying going: 'Learn the meaning of friendship, Kurt'. That was part of it. Then their other justification was that playing my music was like playing covers, because they didn't get to write their own parts. So they kicked me out, got in more assholes and went nowhere." He smiles. "And I love them still."
Kurt piled all his equipment on top of his bass amplifier, wheeled it down the street, and moved on. Never staying in one place more than two or three months at a time, he carried a bag, and had a steamer trunk sent to him when he decided to settle down for a longer stay, and while he moved, he made contacts. So many contacts. In Washington DC, he hung with the like of the Nation Of Ulysses and Fugazi, interested and amused by their puritanical attitudes, and watched as they bussed tables in restaurants to become 'closer to the people'. He DJed at nightclubs with a repertoire of Smokie Robinson and Afrika Bambaataa bonus beats. He traveled to Ireland, and spent three months in the manuscripts room at Trinity College in Dublin reading Francis Bacon in his own handwriting. Went to New York and met Alan McGee, and introduced him to the pleasures of the natural psychedelic root, peyote, and watched as it took its hold. Moved with the rich kid mafia with famous dads and not a lot of brains. All the time travelling, sleeping with people and taking drugs, bandless and rootless.
But he was learning. By 1991, he had decided to give guitar music another try, got a four-string guitar and settled down to play. Something in his personality, he knew, made it impossible for him to have a 'proper' band, so what he embarked on instead was the idea of a one-man band, where he was in control, just picking players: sometimes for his own work, often for other people, part executive producer, part creative genius. Kurt has something of a people problem, you see. You can watch him in action: charming waitresses and bar staff, and he is effusive, funny flirtatious, the sort of person routinely described as 'devilish'. But there's a strong feeling that under his ability to influence people is the capacity for some terrible malice.
"That was the standard call when I was 16," he explains. "I was amoral. I was a bad, bad person The sort of person who can attract people and just as easily turn them away. A lot of people would have loved to have seen me tossed from a 17-storey building, and would have clapped when I hit the ground. If people want to dig in my past, fine: dig. Ask any of our old drummers, they'll tell you what a complete cocksucker I was, and have the ability to be. It's all part of me if I choose to invoke it. I give people choices: if they want to go on the shit slide to hell with me fine - flush. But some people don't have the ability to come back up. Because a fuck-you attitude gets you nothing but a fuck-you attitude. It's what got me into the one-man band thing," he says finally. "No one liked me."
He has got better. Through his travelling, Kurt has a network of contacts and players, musicians who can equally play a wicked lead break or a mean flugelhorn. He has a daughter called Tate, who he treats like one of his best friends: he plays celeste with her, and plays guitar with her while she tries to eat the strings. And he has Lilys, a band of terrible tension but great joy, driven by his desire for perfection, who play pop music of a classic brilliance. In fact, as Kurt looms down in his classic threads, his Byrdsian bowlcut over his eyes, his declaration of love for Beatles spoof The Rutles fresh off his lips, one might even say 'made the way it used to be made'.
'Popular music is like Shakespearean theatre," he says. "It's for the grungy, hardworking, poor-as-shit, gotta get out of this place if it's the last thing I do people. And they want spectacle. Like cinema in the '20s. That was so psychedelic, like woooosh! They have books, then suddenly there's moving pictures, then - woooooah! - they're talking! There's nothing around me except that which I perceive," he continues, "I am the master who makes the grass grow. Grass is not really green, it's a series of hues and it comes into focus in your brain, and your brain says 'Green' and then you have a perception of grass correlated with what you're actually seeing. You look at each blade of grass and you will find that it is unique and unto itself, a sprout that grew and was curtailed. It's a story, and it's a beautiful story, and the thing is " Kurt mists and saddens at the thought of less remarkable contemporaries. " people don't roll around in the grass a lot. Like have you heard Fountains of Wayne? I think they have software "
What there is in Kurt and Lilys is the urge to roll around in the grass a lot. And the more you learn, the less peculiar this strange mixture of super-na´ve and super-demanding genius seems. Kurt's grandfather, Raymond, was the first white guitarist to play in Dixieland band, paid his way through college with the proceeds, and would regularly enthuse to Kurt about Gibson guitars. His son - Kurt's dad - was a software designer, who developed important three-dimensional mapping systems for NASA. He made what Kurt calls "very good investments". Kurt's mum, meanwhile, was the person that turned him on to the benefits of wiggling his toes, to improve circulation. Their offspring? A hyperactive control freak with a vision of great beauty. For whom nothing can go wrong. Just as Calvin Klein had come for his song 'Ginger' as the sound of his new CK2 cologne, so Levi's have come for 'A Nanny In Manhattan' - a story about a girl who ends up looking after her new lover's children - as the sound of their Monkees-style advertising frolic. Perfect?
"There's not one piece of Levi's clothing that will ever fit me," says Kurt. "There is not one Giorgio Armani jacket that will ever fit me. I don't need them," he says, surveying his masterful attire. "I need a black and white jacket. I need a pair of charcoal pants. I need a mustard-green sweater. It's my selected reality. I have been allowed to exist in a world protected, evoked freedom: that's the Kurt. Chase it, love it, be it. If you want to take in your pants to look like The Monkees, fine. The Monkees' music never did anything for me," he says, "but the way they lived: four men on horseback, girls from foreign countries wanting to marry you "
Kurt smiles, and finishes his vodka and cranberry with the relish of a man who has just stumbled on a personal code for living. " that's just what happens in a good life." Listening, Lou?
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